The call for accountability in U.S. schools is gaining intensity.
The emergence of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the high dropout rate, and
media reports of declining test scores fuel claims that children are not
achieving, and that schools do not do enough to ensure that achievement.
The resulting rhetoric pits grade retention against social promotion, as
if they were the only options. What is wrong with this tired view of
schooling? Is grade retention really a viable intervention that can
ensure a child's academic achievement? If not, what are the
What School Looks Like
Children come to school to learn. In kindergarten, they begin to
acquire the skills needed to move up the educational ladder. At the end
of kindergarten, those children who have the requisite skills move on to
1st grade, and this pattern continues as the child progresses through
the grades. This structure seems logical, linear, and commonsensical.
However, this entrenched line of thinking has shallow roots, as we
examine the history of education and the research that has been
conducted in regard to this movement, or lack of movement, upward
through the age-graded system.
The age-graded system, which segregates students by age, is the
most common structure for schools in the United States. It was
introduced by Horace Mann, who brought the model from Prussia and
implemented it in the mid 1800s at the Quincy Grammar School in Boston,
Massachusetts. Textbooks became associated with curricula for grade
levels and that, it seems, laid the groundwork for a rudimentary
standards movement. Children were promoted to higher grade levels on the
basis of their mastery of the affiliated skills.
This model is the only one that most people in the United States
have ever known. In fact, because most people have known this system
from the inside out, they feel comfortable making judgments about the
system. Politicians, parents, and the media often rate schools poorly
and offer much advice for improving the quality of schools.
Consequently, students are trundled through the system as if they are
products on an assembly line. Yet, the reality is far more complicated.
All Things Are Not Equal
First, let us analyze how children are typically admitted to school
in any given year. If the cut-off date (by birthdate) is September 1st,
for example, then children can enter the grade if they have their fifth
birthday at any time from September 1st of the previous year to August
31st of the school entry year. Given that this span of a year accounts
for a huge percentage of a kindergartner's lifetime, when progress
and development are marked in months, not by years, you begin to realize
the vast differences that may exist among these 5-year-olds. Also
realize that many children are overage for grade, including children who
are academically redshirted or those who have been held back in grade.
This further divides a classroom chronologically.
Chronology is but one factor. Consider the different
domains--cognitive, affective, physical, and social--that reside within
each child. All of these factors impact the child and his ability to
operate within a school setting.
Now, contemplate language development. Again taking into
consideration the age differences within any given classroom, the stages
of language development also will be varied. Children's expressive
vocabulary, ability to articulate needs and ideas, and aptitude to
converse socially are uneven. Add to this the reality that most children
in the United States are asked to perform academically and socially in
English, which may not be their first language. These English language
learners are learning a new language, may be adjusting to a new culture,
and are trying to become attuned to school.
A class of 24 kindergartners further separates when we take into
consideration that some children will have developmental delays, some
will have learning differences, and some will have separation anxiety
and/or other issues that inhibit their abilities to engage in the school
The accountability movement has thrust incredible responsibility on
teachers and students to perform in spite of this diversity. While
accountability is necessary, the way in which accountability is measured
and what is done with this information can be disturbing.
High-stakes tests in the United States often determine whether
students will be promoted or graduate.
Many states have instituted policies prohibiting children from
promotion if they do not achieve a minimum score on an achievement test.
It seems intuitive that if students have not mastered content, they
should not be able to move forward. Holding children back in grade, it
is thought, will allow them time to mature and/or acquire the needed
skills and knowledge to provide a foundation for success. Again, the
reality is more complicated.
Holding Children Back: Grade Retention
Children who are held back and denied the ability to be promoted
with their peers--being retained in grade--are most commonly kept back
due to academic or socioemotional reasons. A significant proportion of
these children are male, young for grade, small for age, of color,
and/or living in poverty conditions.
Researchers have studied grade retention since the early part of
the 20th century. Keyes (1911) conducted a longitudinal study that
examined "accelerates," students who were promoted, and
"arrests," those who were retained. This seven-year study
suggested that 21% of the repeaters did better after repeating the grade
and 39% did worse. Interestingly, he also noted that "arrest is
most likely to follow too early or too late entrance to school"
(Keyes, 1911, p. 62). His research indicated that almost 25% of pupils
were retained at some point during grades I through 9. He also cited a
tendency for students to leave school after the 8th grade, rather than
risk repeating a grade.
In an early experimental study, Klene and Branson (1929) examined
students who were potential repeaters and then assigned to promotion or
retention based on chronological age, mental age, and gender. They
concluded that promoted students benefited more than those who were
In 1933, Caswell looked at the current retention research of the
time in his study titled Non-Promotion in Elementary Schools. He
concluded that "non-promotion is a type of failure that tends to
deaden, disillusion and defeat the child" (p. 81).
Arthur (1936) studied the achievement of 60 grade-1 pupils who
repeated a grade, using a pre- and post-test design. She determined that
"the average repeater of the group studied learned no more in two
years than did the average non-repeater of the same mental age in one
year" (p. 205), echoing the results of Klene and Branson (1929).
Goodlad (1954) conducted a comparative study of the effects of
promotion and non-promotion on social and personal adjustment. He found
that the children who were not promoted did not thrive as well as their
promoted counterparts when compared with their own class groups.
In 1975, Jackson "provided the first systematic, comprehensive
overview of the research evidence on the effects of grade
retention" (Jimerson, 2001, p. 421). Jackson concluded that
"there is no reliable body of evidence to indicate that grade
retention is more beneficial than grade promotion for students with
serious academic or adjustment difficulties" (1975, p. 627). Still,
the practice continued.
Holmes and Matthews (1984) conducted another seminal piece of
research examining the effects of retention on elementary and junior
high school students' achievement and socioemotional outcomes. They
concluded that promoted students fared better than their retained
counterparts, stating that "those who continue to retain pupils do
so despite cumulative research evidence showing that the potential for
negative effects consistently outweighs positive outcomes" (Holmes
& Matthews, 1984, p. 232). Five years later, Holmes added 19 more
studies to the original meta-analysis conducted by Holmes and Matthews.
Out of a total of 63 empirical studies, only nine yielded positive
results (Holmes, 1989). Despite yet another admonition regarding the
practice and a track record of over 50 years of inconclusive research at
that time, grade retention continued.
In his subsequent meta-analysis, Jimerson (2001) explained that the
previous review and meta-analyses indicate an "absence of empirical
evidence" to support the practice of retention. Jimerson's
study summarized much of the research regarding retention executed in
the 20th century.
While research regarding the efficacy of grade retention has
provided mixed results, the existing theory regarding grade retention is
that it is probably ineffective as a strategy to improve academic
achievement or increase personal adjustment (Holmes, 1989; Holmes &
Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson, 2001). This option has been
researched for almost a century, and few clear-cut benefits are evident
(Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson,
2001). Yet, the practice persists.
Grade Retention and Dropout
One of the most reported consequences of student retention is its
correlation with subsequent dropout. Children who are retained have a
higher incidence of dropout (Grissom & Shepard, 1989; Roderick,
1994; Rumberger, 1995). Anderson, Whipple, and Jimerson (2002) found
"retention to be one of the most powerful predictors of high school
dropout, with retained students 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of
high school than promoted students" (Anderson, Whipple, &
Jimerson, 2002, p. 2). In fact, Rumberger (1995) indicates that
retention is the strongest predictor of subsequent dropout.
Shepard and Smith (1989) also state that "large-scale surveys
of dropouts and graduates reveal that substantially more dropouts than
graduates have at some time in their career been retained in grade"
(p. 215). Roderick (1994) concluded that "repeating a grade from
kindergarten to sixth grade was associated with a substantial increase
in the odds of dropping out" (p. 729). In addition, the National
Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in 1995 that individuals
who are retained are almost twice as likely to drop out than those who
have never been retained. Males were two-thirds more likely to be
retained than females, and retention rates increased from 1992 to 1995.
Similarly, Frymier (1997) reported that those that have been
retained in grade are about twice as likely to drop out as those who
were never retained. Additionally, those who were retained had more
difficulty in every risk area examined in his descriptive, comparative
study. Jimerson and Ferguson (2007) again examined the efficacy of the
practice of grade retention and noted, "The association of grade
retention and high school dropout is disconcerting and seems to be the
most common deleterious outcome during adolescence" (p. 334). This
leads to a critical question--of the over six million students who
dropped out in 2007 (Center for Labor Market Studies, 2009), how many
were retained in grade? This outcome associated with the practice of
grade retention has far-reaching ramifications, both for the individual
If Not Retention, Then What?
There is no question that interventions (other than grade
retention) are needed to help all children succeed in school. We need
fresh alternatives and new ways of thinking about children.
Consider the following: Children do not develop neatly in all
domains and, especially, not simultaneously. The complexity of the
individual is incalculable, and children in any given classroom may vary
by age and by ability across domains. All children will not and should
not be on the same page at the same time, and children should be met
where they are, not where we think they should be.
Such issues as language development affect learning, and teachers
should expect skill and knowledge acquisition to differ from child to
child. By recognizing that children may be highly skilled and
knowledgeable in one area and have gaps in another, and still believing
that each child can succeed, teachers may capitalize on the strengths of
each child and scaffold learning.
Furthermore, learning in the early childhood years is vastly
different than in later years, and children may make leaps in their
development, because learning does not only occur incrementally. As has
been often stated, schools must be ready for children just as much as
children should be ready for school.
Finally, it is important to look at viable interventions. The
system of grade retention intervention, at a cost of approximately $18
billion per year (Xia & Glennie, 2005), does not guarantee
subsequent school success and has been linked to later high school
dropout. Surely, other interventions could promote success and prevent
some of the negative consequences of grade retention, and perhaps at a
fraction of the cost.
Such alternatives can include greater early assessment and
interventions in the early childhood years prior to schooling and
substantive interventions in the early grades. Flexible time lines can
be employed for skill, language, and knowledge acquisition with
enrichment programs for all children, to enhance their experiences and
provide rich language opportunities. Furthermore, we should ditch the
deficit model of learning and instead provide opportunities for mastery
and success while honoring development, which may be uneven across
domains, and look at multiple options for schooling, such as multiage
classrooms (Stone, 2009), in order to implement true systemic change.
Leaving Children Behind
The act of grade retention may keep children behind. Decades of
research have been inconclusive regarding the benefits of the practice,
with much of the research pointing to its detriments. It is time to
employ the whole world of a child when helping him learn and succeed.
The family, the school, and the community can assist in uncovering and
maximizing the potential of every child.
Anderson, G., Whipple, A., & Jimerson, S. (2002, November).
Grade retention: Achievement and mental health outcomes. Communique
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Family Policy, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.
Pamela Jane Powell is Assistant Professor, Department of Teaching
and Learning, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona.